`Grand Chef` sequel whets appetite but lacks meat

  • Published : Mar 29, 2010 - 23:22
  • Updated : Mar 29, 2010 - 23:22


It was all there right on the screen - the mouth watering close-ups of fresh, crisp leafy cabbages marinating in all sorts of spices with the hands of chefs, covered in red chili sauce, delicately tearing strips of their masterpieces.
And there were all the right ingredients for a feast of a film, but it was clear the team behind "Le Grand Chef, Kimchi Battle," was far more concerned about visual pageantry than storytelling.
The film does a wondrous job promoting Korea`s iconic side dish, whetting the appetites of critics during the advanced screening, but unfortunately the plot falls way short of the mark.
And despite the marketing team behind the film boasting that over 100 types of kimchi are shown throughout the film, there was maybe less than half that amount, which is still quite a lot.
Based on the bestselling comic of the same name, the second installment has master chef Jang-eun (Kim Jung-eun) and nomadic produce merchant Sung-chan (Jin Gu) competing against each other in a national kimchi contest - a cross between a barbeque cook-off and an Iron Chef bout.
Not much of the passion author and illustrator Hur Young-man splashed onto the pages of his original comic strip is present on screen.
Hur reportedly traveled all over the country to learn everything there was to know about kimchi, its history, regional characteristics, and processes - from marinating to fermentation - before his serial was published.
The film does make a valiant effort to retain that passion on screen but it is marred by a cliched storyline and a banal attempt at tragedy, with a pointless subplot involving an old woman and her estranged son later in the second act.
At its core, the film is about preserving traditional cuisine and denouncing the current trend of fusion-style Korean dishes.
The film suggests it is definitely meant to be traditional versus contemporary.
The story revolves under the roof of a traditional Korean restaurant and "hanok" where the two leading characters were raised.
Jang-eun`s mother Soo-hyang - played with quiet gravitas by Lee Bo-hee - also raised Sung-chan as a young orphan as if he was one of her own.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Jang-eun has grown to revile her own mother for bringing her up in a house she was conceived illegitimately as a "bastard child" of one of her clients during her days working as a geisha, while Sung-chan has remained loyal by her side.
Both have become masters in the art of Korean cuisine, except Sung-chan has been quite settled and content on living a quiet life selling produce off the back of his Bongo truck and giving nutritional advice to neighborhood "ajumma," or married women.
In stark contrast, Jang-eun has become a cold-hearted world renowned chef that commands the utmost respect from her peers.
She has turned into something of a culinary Joan d`Arc.
Full of contempt for the house and restaurant she was raised in, Jang-eun offers to buy the property and destroy it to erase the memories of her past.
Sung-chan, however, is against it, as it was also the restaurant that has served so many memories to countless regular customers and their families due to their mother`s mastery of traditional Korean cuisine.
So they make a wager that the winner of the national kimchi contest will decide upon the fate of "Chunyanggak," the name of the restaurant and their childhood home.
Once the competition begins, Jang-eun and Sung-chan exhibit two completely different culinary styles.
Jang-eun`s preference to infusing intercontinental influences on Korean cuisine is opposite to Sung-chan`s grassroots method of creating his dishes.
These scenes in a sense are an appropriate reference and critique to fusion cooking of recent times.
So many of Korea`s promising chefs have incorporated influences from other cuisines that the essence of indigenous dishes have been lost in the process.
Just as Jang-eun is ashamed of her past, it seems Korean chefs are ashamed of using simply local ingredients and traditional methods to create their dishes.
Whether or not the filmmakers intended such analysis is another question, because with two such engaging personalities, it is unfortunate they had to be part of a generic storyline.
Otherwise, the outcome of the film could have been engrossing and emotionally stirring.
Perhaps the filmmakers went with a formulaic plot to gel well with the film`s theme of preserving the ways of the past because these types of melodramas have come to define the dramatic arts of this country.
Toward the climax of the film, Sung-chan states that judging food all boils down to whether it reminds the judges of their mother`s cooking and that a combination of nostalgic memories and the skill of the chef determines which is better among a heap of masterfully created dishes.
Maybe this philosophy applies to the film`s familiar plot as well in trying to remind viewers of popular television dramas with similar storylines of the past - especially during the 80s and 90s when serials aimed at pulling heartstrings were all the rage.
Regardless of whether that was the intention, a collection of cliche-riddled moments and cartoonish characterizations stifle the film from being anything other than a puff-piece to promote kimchi to all of Asia.
No doubt, the first thing producers were thinking was selling the distribution rights to the film all across the region, when they should have focused on putting together decent script.
The film has come at an appropriate time too as the current administration is really pushing to promote Korean cuisine on a global scale.
And with the Visit Korea Years having kick-started this year, it seems everything`s all about promoting all things Korea.

By Song Woong-ki